After two Tests, the Ashes is all square at 1-1. I’ve been disappointed with the pitches we have seen in the first two Tests. They can be best described as ordinary and certainly not the kind you want Test matches to be played on.
That Australia won so convincingly at Lord’s was because of their bowlers. They showed what genuine pace can do even on flat surfaces. The pitch wasn’t too different to Cardiff, but here they certainly had a lot more energy and showed a bit more purpose. They kept hitting the deck hard and made use of the extra bounce Lord’s generally offers. In comparison, England don’t have the pace and that can be a big factor on slow wickets.
But England’s concern immediately should be their batting line-up. You either need to look at the personnel or the position of the personnel. I find it hard to believe there’s no one apart from Gary Ballance who is capable of batting at No. 3. It almost seems like seeing him come out to bat one drop has the Australian fast bowlers rub their hands in anticipation.
Looking at the other side, there are no such worries for Australia. Apart from their bowlers coming together as a group, I’ve been impressed with Chris Rogers. He isn’t someone who will excite the world, but is sound, solid and the type of batsman who can open the batting and just do what is required.
He’s old-fashioned, spending time at the crease and seeing off the new ball. But you don’t mind having someone like that if you have David Warner and strokemakers like Michael Clarke and Steven Smith in your ranks. He’s solid, gets his runs and is an important member in this Australian batting line-up.
There has been a lot of speculation about the strength of Australia’s batting because of the age of some of their debutants. I haven’t followed too much of their domestic cricket to know what their bench strength is like, so I can’t comment too much on their decision to debut players in the mid-30s. It could be an indicator that there aren’t many young and exciting batsmen coming through, but as long as the ones selected are performing, it doesn’t matter.
Smith made plenty of runs. He’s young, but I also feel his technique and style of shuffling across his wickets as far as he does could be found out on more helpful pitches. England were correct in their plan of bowling outside the off stump; some may say that cannot be right, because he scored a double-century, but Smith was also a touch lucky to have been let off early in his first innings. If the pitch wasn’t as docile, the edge to Ian Bell would have carried at a more comfortable height and he may have not made all those runs. There were also other occasions when thick outside edges fell short of the slip cordon, again because of the docile pitch, which could have resulted in his dismissal under more favourable conditions. That said, nothing should be taken away from his innings. He batted well and deserved his rewards.
The series is in the balance now, and one of the talking points has been Clarke, the batsman. There has been speculation that his bad back is playing a part in his lack of production so far, but I wouldn’t be worried about that aspect of his cricket. He has been plagued by that condition over many years, he even talked about retiring at one point, but he came back. So I can’t really say the back injury is a reason for him not scoring runs. Whatever the problem, it’s not insurmountable. Batsmen go through periods like that. For all you know, he may make two or three centuries in the remaining Tests.
We have seen that teams batting first in both Tests have had a large advantage. On both occasions, the captain who lost the toss looked disappointed, because they knew conditions favoured whoever batted first.
I think memories of the 2013-14 Ashes still haunt England, where they were blown away on hard and bouncy pitches, hence the two prepared for this series so far. I think they fear they can’t beat Australia on such pitches. But what England need to recognise is that if they don’t win the toss and put up a big score, they can’t win either, because their bowling isn’t very effective on these surfaces. James Anderson went wicketless; so they need to recognise what their strengths are. They certainly seem to have an inclination, because Alastair Cook, when asked at the presentation ceremony after the second Test what pitch he would like for the next Test, replied, “a normal English-style pitch”. Enough said.